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Summer road trips provide the perfect way to get away from the demands and stresses of everyday life. And no road trip takes you to a more remote part of North America than the Alaska Highway. Indeed, taking a close look at Alaska Highway history uncovers a lot of WW2 milestones that most of us have never heard. At least it certainly did for us!

The Alaska Highway, despite its name, runs for 1187 miles in Canada, and only 200 in Alaska, for a total of 1387 miles. And it was built, not to connect northern Canadian communities, but in response to the threat of a Japanese invasion on North America after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Indeed, you could say the Alaska Highway was the most transformative North American physical result of WWII, since the Americas were never bombed.

This article is a 15 minute read, including:

Dawson Creek, BC — Start of the Alaska Highway
Northern Alberta Railway Park
Walter Wright Pioneer Village
Kiskatinaw Bridge
Road Trip from Dawson Creek to Fort Nelson
Fort Nelson, British Columbia
Most Scenic Day on Alaska Highway Road Trip
Watson Lake, Yukon
Road Trip on the Alaska Highway — Watson Lake to Whitehorse
WWII Air Radio Building
Whitehorse

Dawson Creek, BC — Start of the Alaska Highway

Sign for entering the Alaska Highway in Dawson Creek, British Columbia

Sign for entering the Alaska Highway in Dawson Creek, British Columbia.

The Alaska Highway begins in the British Columbia, Canada, town of Dawson Creek, nearly 600 km northwest of Edmonton. How the highway came about is a great story of international cooperation. It started with Pearl Harbor being bombed December 7, 1941. The U.S. response was swift. They needed to protect their northern interests, so made a deal with Canada to foot the bill for a highway across the north in return for giving Canada the highway when all was said and done.

Three short months later, on March 8, 1942, construction equipment and men began to arrive in Dawson Creek. In total, over 10,000 men started work at three locations along the route that led from British Columbia through the Yukon, into Alaska.

Jeep at Alaska Highway House museum

Jeep at Alaska Highway House museum

Now, that history is collected and curated at the Alaska Highway House, which you can see when you’re standing at the Alaska Highway sign above. It was our first stop. While the museum is small, it has an efficient design that packed both artifacts from WWII, and signage providing lots of details, into the small area. However, it’s still hard to imagine the hardships endured by the troops sent north, many of them from the Southern U.S. and totally unused to the cold and terrain they encountered. The museum does a good job of providing insights on their lives.

Travel Tip for Dawson Creek

If you’re looking for a great place for dinner, try Sola’s Bar & Grill Steakhouse & Lounge in Dawson Creek. While David recommends a steak, I suggest the Beach Salad with blackened/grilled chicken. The strawberries, quinoa, and pecans add a distinctive flavor that blends well with the raspberry vinaigrette dressing.

The museum’s largest artifact is a WWII jeep that sits on a frame of logs, or “corduroy road,” that was used in marshy areas, which builders of the Alaska Highway encountered a lot. The logs stabilized the terrain, so it could be covered with dirt and packed down to move fuel and supplies to the front units doing the building.

Northern Alberta Railway (NAR) Park

Historic Pool elevator housing an Art Gallery in Dawson Creek.

Historic Pool elevator housing an Art Gallery in Dawson Creek.

You’ll notice NAR Park from a distance, as it’s the home of one of the iconic grain elevators of the prairies. This particular prairie giant is also home to Dawson Creek’s Visitor Information Centre, the Dawson Creek Museum, two gift shops and a cafe. It’s also the location of the start of the Alaska Highway.

The elevator that has been preserved in Dawson Creek was built in 1948, and was identified as Alberta Wheat Pool Elevator No. 2. Exactly how big is this giant? The main tower is 35 feet square and 95 feet high. It’s the only survivor of eight that originally served the agricultural community.

Walter Wright Pioneer Village

Dawson Creek’s Walter Wright Pioneer Village provides an opportunity for a self-guided tour of an open air museum. It curates the settlement and activities of the area from early times up to the start of the Alaska Highway. The buildings are all from the area and have been restored to their original condition. The following video takes you through the village.

Kiskatinaw Bridge

When you leave Dawson Creek on the Alaska Highway, also known as the Alcan Highway, keep your eye out for a short side-trip to see the historic Kiskatinaw Bridge. Built at Mile 20 on the original highway, it’s located about 30 km north of Dawson Creek. This 1942 bridge is a curved, three span timber-truss structure about 122 m in length and 30 m above the Kiskatinaw River.

In terms of design, it’s very unique! In fact, it was the first wooden curved bridge built in Canada. If you’ve ever walked a banked race track, you’ll really appreciate the design. Why? Engineers used a super-elevated (banked) nine degree curve to conform with the bend of the highway where it crossed a hairpin turn in the river. The lumber itself was creosoted British Columbia fir.

Road Trip from Dawson Creek to Fort Nelson

The Alaska Highway drive from Dawson Creek to Fort Nelson is about 5 hours, or just under 500 km (310 miles). The terrain is mostly flat, although there are two brake checks for trucks due to steep inclines on the highway.

Alaska Highway Travel Tip

We stopped for lunch in Fort St. John, at the Montana’s. It was delicious, but then again there’s nothing better than barbecue done well! If you have time to spend, you may want to check out the Fort St. John North Peace Museum and the outstanding views at the Peace River Corridor Provincial Park.

Although there aren’t many stops, Mile 143 on the Alaska Highway is home to the small hamlet of Pink Mountain in the Rocky Mountain Foothills. If you’re wondering about the name, it comes from Pink Mountain glows a vibrant pink color sometimes during sunrise.

Keep your eyes open, though, as this area is sometimes referred to as the Serengeti of North America. Indeed, if you’re on the Alaska Highway to explore nature, you’ll want to plan to stay awhile! As well as rare and endangered species of flora and fauna, there are eight species of ungulates including Stone Sheep, mountain goats, bison, moose, elk, caribou, white-tailed and mule deer. You’ll also find at least seven species of medium-sized carnivores including wolves, coyotes, foxes, grizzly bears, black bears, lynx and wolverines.

If birdwatching or fishing for Arctic grayling is on your list of things to do, consider stopping at the 113-hectare Prophet River Wayside Provincial Park. It’s located at Alaska Highway marker, Kilometre 350 (Mile 219) on the site of a 1942 US Army camp used during construction of the Alaska Highway.

Fort Nelson, British Columbia

Mile 300 on the Alaska Highway road trip.

Mile 300 on the Alaska Highway road trip.

Fort Nelson is at Mile 300 on the Alaska Highway. However, since there was already a road of sorts between Dawson Creek and Fort Nelson, some, such sources such as Travel British Columbia, indicate that Fort Nelson was the original Mile 0 for the Alaska Highway.

I’d made reservations for each night in advance on our road trip, as I hadn’t been sure what types of accommodations might be available in July. As it turned out, there were a lot that were better looking places than the motel I’d selected, but at least it was clean and comfortable. What we enjoyed the most, though, was the company. We usually find motels a lot of fun, simply because you get to visit with other travelers outside your room while you’re enjoying a summer evening in a lawn chair.

Our neighbors, it turned out, were from the Interlake Region in Manitoba. They were riding motorcycles — something we soon discovered was common on the Alaska Highway. Our journeys were exactly opposite, as they had started with the Alaska Marine Highway and were on their way home down the Alaska Highway.

Alaska Highway Travel Tip

If you’re looking for some great pizza at a good price (food can be pricey on the Alaska Highway), we recommend the Fort Nelson Domino’s Pizza.

When it comes to museums, the main things we hoped to see were machines related to the building of the Alaska Highway. The Fort Nelson Heritage Museum had several, along with various vintage cars. Much to David’s pleasure, they even had a snowmobile model that we hadn’t run into before — and that takes a lot.

Alaska highway machines at Fort Nelson Heritage Museum

Machines used to build the Alaska Highway on display at the Fort Nelson Heritage Museum.

The museum was large, with lots of interior and exterior displays, so it took us a couple of hours to explore. Then, it was on to what would be our favorite day of scenery on our Alaska Highway road trip.

Most Scenic Day on Alaska Highway Road Trip

Big Horn Sheep on our Alaska Highway road trip.

Big Horn Sheep on our Alaska Highway road trip.

The Alaska Highway runs for just over 310 m (500 km)  from Fort Nelson to Watson Lake. While the highway is paved, it’s narrow and twists and turns through the mountains, so has a reduced speed limit. The views, though, are worth it, even in the fog that we encountered.

Indeed, the highest point on the Alaska Highway, Summit Lake, is on this stretch of the drive. The lake is at around 4,250 ft (1300 m), and provides you with opportunities to take photos, hike, discover orchids near the hot springs, or watch the birds.

The first wildlife of the day for us was a bear, then a moose, both before we reached Toad River.

Alaska Highway Travel Tip

Toad River is a self-sufficient little British Columbia community of around 75 people, which provides everything you might need on a stop: Toad River Lodge, cabins, RV campground, food, and fuel. The menu had some variety, as David enjoyed pork chops while I took the salmon. They also offered free wifi while we were dining, so we could catch up on the news.

The most fascinating thing about Toad River Lodge is the hats. Yes, the hats. There are 7000+ hats from around the world stapled to the Lodge ceiling, so you’ll have lots to see while you dine.

Around 30 m (50 km) from Toad River, we reached Muncho Lake. British Columbia’s Muncho Lake Provincial Park includes the lake area, plus is part of the larger Muskwa-Kechika Management Area. The 7.5 m (12 km) long lake is one of the must-stop for places on the road trip, as its deep aqua-green color is fabulous. It nestles between the Canadian Rockies creating a picture postcard.

Muncho Lake in the Northern Rockies along the Alaska Highway.

Muncho Lake in the Northern Rockies along the Alaska Highway.

Leaving Muncho Lake, we stopped to watch a small herd of big horn sheep climbing the mountains. A little further along, we also saw mountain goats, a moose, a herd of bison, and another small bear. The animal we least expected though, was a beaver waddling down the middle of the highway!

Watson Lake, Yukon

The town of Watson Lake, in the Yukon, was established during WWII at Mile 635 on the Alaska Highway. It began with the construction of a military airport in 1941, then the Alaska Highway in 1942. It served as a supply and accommodations center. Home to under 1000 people, it provides a full range of facilities for travelers.

Air Force Lodge in Watson Lake, Yukon -- original WWII barracks.

Air Force Lodge in Watson Lake, Yukon — original WWII barracks.

We stayed at the Air Force Lodge to get an idea of what it would have been like in 1942 for pilots flying during WWII. Indeed, the Lodge was built in 1942 and served as a barracks — while the interior has been refurbished, the exterior is in its original form. Though sparsely decorated, as you’d expect, the Lodge has wireless high-speed Internet, satellite tv and is completely non-smoking. To keep the experience authentic, there aren’t private bathrooms, so remember to pack a housecoat if you book here.

Watson’s Lake’s most well known attraction is its Sign Post Forest. While there are others around, Watson Lake is home to the original.

Sign Post Forest in Watson Lake, Yukon.

Sign Post Forest in Watson Lake, Yukon.

It was started, as you likely expected, by a U.S. soldier who missed his hometown back in the U.S. Since the soldier, Carl K. Lindley, had the job of erecting signs for the Alaska Highway, he started the Sign Post Forest with one of his own from Danville, Illinois. Today, there are 80,000+ signs in the forest.

Road Trip on the Alaska Highway — Watson Lake to Whitehorse

It’s about 270 miles (438 km) from Watson Lake to Whitehorse on the Alaska Highway. On the way, though, you’ll find the beautiful Nisutlin Bay at Mile 804, and small town of Teslin, Yukon. The town of Teslin is located on Teslin Lake at the mouth of the Nisutlin River.

Nisutlin Bay Bridge crossing the narrowest point of Teslin Lake.

Nisutlin Bay Bridge crossing the narrowest point of Teslin Lake. The bridge has seven Warren through-truss spans, and is the longest bridge on the Alaska Highway.

The lake was part of an all-Canadian route to the Klondike and its Gold Rush of 1897-98, although a trading post was established in 1903. Today, most of the 100 or so inhabitants are descendants of the Tlingit people.

Alaska Highway Travel Tip

The Yukon Motel in Teslin is a popular stop on the Alaska Highway for everything from fuel to food (restaurant and bakery) — they even have a free wildlife gallery to check out. We can recommend the elk sausage for a taste of the North.

However, there’s more to Teslin’s history than the Klondike Gold Rush. The George Johnston Museum and Heritage Park is definitely worth a stop. Johnston was a Tlingit elder, trapper, fur trader, and photographer. Indeed, his photos provide some insightful glances back in time, as does his restored 1928 Chevy car and many Tlingit ceremonial regalia and traditional artifacts.

Of course, the museum also details the impact of the Alaska Highway on the traditional community and its residents. While it’s something we often forget, the arrival of thousands of men in uniform, heavy equipment and noise, changed the landscape and their lifestyles forever.

George Johnston Museum in Teslin, Yukon.

George Johnston Museum in Teslin, Yukon.

WWII Air Radio Building

The most significant find for us, when it came to WWII history, was the 1940s Air Radio Building in the same parking lot as the museum. In 1940, Canada had constructed air navigation stations that stretched across the North. The next year, to assist with the U.S. Lend-Lease aircraft to Russia program, the country upgraded 15 stations, including Teslin.

Teslin’s station was equipped with beam transmitters that arrived by rail including: insulated towers (60 – 127 ft or 18 – 38 m high), log kits, and of course state of the art radio equipment. The radios emitted continuous wave communications and long wave navigational signals that guided planes from 1941 to the late 1960s.

Whitehorse

Whitehorse is located at Historic Milepost 918 on the Alaska Highway, and was our final stop. We’